The spiritual Message of German Fairy tales

Iron John

Tale of the Brothers Grimm translated by M. Hunt [1884]
Interpretation by Undine & Jens in green [2018]

There was once on a time a King who had a great forest near his palace, full of all kinds of wild animals. One day he sent out a huntsman to shoot him a roe, but he did not come back. “Perhaps some accident has befallen him,” said the King, and the next day he sent out two more huntsmen who were to search for him, but they too stayed away. Then on the third day, he sent for all his huntsmen, and said, “Scour the whole forest through, and do not give up until ye have found all three.” But of these also, none came home again, and of the pack of hounds which they had taken with them, none were seen more. From that time forth, no one would any longer venture into the forest, and it lay there in deep stillness and solitude, and nothing was seen of it, but sometimes an eagle or a hawk flying over it.

There is obviously a conflict between the king standing for the civilized culture on the one hand and the forest with the wild nature on the other hand, just like the contrast between gold and iron. Nature appears hostile, and the hunters, who usually connect these two worlds, disappear inexplicably. At first one suspects their death and decides out of fear to stay away from hostile nature and to withdraw into urban culture. But as you will learn in the following, that was not the solution, because soon there will be a brave man who cannot accept this limit.

This lasted for many years, when a strange huntsman announced himself to the King as seeking a situation, and offered to go into the dangerous forest. The King, however, would not give his consent, and said, “It is not safe in there; I fear it would fare with thee no better than with the others, and thou wouldst never come out again.” The huntsman replied, “Lord, I will venture it at my own risk, of fear I know nothing.”

The huntsman therefore betook himself with his dog to the forest. It was not long before the dog fell in with some game on the way, and wanted to pursue it; but hardly had the dog run two steps when it stood before a deep pool, could go no farther, and a naked arm stretched itself out of the water, seized it, and drew it under, When the huntsman saw that, he went back and fetched three men to come with buckets and bale out the water. When they could see to the bottom there lay a wild man whose body was brown like rusty iron, and whose hair hung over his face down to his knees. They bound him with cords, and led him away to the castle. There was great astonishment over the wild man; the King, however, had him put in an iron cage in his court-yard, and forbade the door to be opened on pain of death, and the Queen herself was to take the key into her keeping. And from this time forth every one could again go into the forest with safety.

Here we have the famous swamp of nature, a hostile world where you can sink in at every step. And what do we do: drain and sterilize! We drive nature into a corner and then try to seize its essence. That sounds very simple at first. In our fairy tale a wild man appears who can be bound and imprisoned. Even if it sounds very strange to us today, at that time the essence of nature was expected to be a living being. Today we would be looking more for formulas, energies and particles that the mind can master. But for this fairy tale the essence was called “Iron John”. Why iron? Iron was a symbol of hardness and strength, and was used for armour, weapons, tools, etc., but it also rusted quickly. So it was a very raw metal, which could be refined by human art in many ways. Mastering iron, or nature, is considered one of the highest achievements of civilized humanity. Well, was that the final solution to the conflict between culture and nature?

One can also see another symbolism of King and Iron John: The king of a country represents the spiritual power in the country, which ensures order. The forest is the symbol of the disordered wild, which slumbers deep in nature and also in our subconscious. The power, for the king, should have a good relationship to the wilderness, because the order and the chaos both exist together in our world. But here the relationship between order and wilderness, i.e. the conscious and unconscious, seems to be disturbed, because the king no longer has access to the forest. The nature of the wild has even turned against the king (the unconscious torments the conscious), and he no longer knows how to deal with it, even when he has it in front of him. He wants to force it, because he can only see the outside, the surface, and he locks the iron-hard appearing also in an iron cage. He wants to suppress it, and forbids his people to come near him. Apparently the access to the forest is restored, but for a high price, because the unconscious is not understood and used, but suppressed.

Anyone who likes this train of thought is invited to follow it by himself in this tale…

The King had a son of eight years, who was once playing in the court-yard, and while he was playing, his golden ball fell into the cage. The boy ran thither and said, “Give me my ball out.” “Not till thou hast opened the door for me,” answered the man. “No,” said the boy, “I will not do that; the King has forbidden it,” and ran away. The next day he again went and asked for his ball; the wild man said, “Open my door,” but the boy would not. On the third day the King had ridden out hunting, and the boy went once more and said, “I cannot open the door even if I wished, for I have not the key.” Then the wild man said, “It lies under thy mother’s pillow, thou canst get it there.” The boy, who wanted to have his ball back, cast all thought to the winds, and brought the key. The door opened with difficulty, and the boy pinched his fingers. When it was open the wild man stepped out, gave him the golden ball, and hurried away. The boy had become afraid; he called and cried after him, “Oh, wild man, do not go away, or I shall be beaten!” The wild man turned back, took him up, set him on his shoulder, and went with hasty steps into the forest. When the King came home, he observed the empty cage, and asked the Queen how that had happened? She knew nothing about it, and sought the key, but it was gone. She called the boy, but no one answered. The King sent out people to seek for him in the fields, but they did not find him. Then he could easily guess what had happened, and much grief reigned in the royal court.

The gold, which appears to man as embodied sunlight, is much nobler than iron. It shines, shimmers, does not rust and is incomparably valuable. It can have a great purity and is therefore also a symbol of our true nature or the pure soul. So you can also find the golden ball in this fairy tale, which the boy owns quite naturally. But not only the boy in the fairy tale, every man has pure gold in his heart, namely the ability to change and to understand the truth, no matter who our worldly parents are or whether we are still conscious of this gold within us.

Why is the golden ball rolling right into the cage of Iron John? Obviously, the gold is attracted by the iron. The king’s son does not fear the contact with the wild nature, so he is not yet so grown stiff in culture and so-called civilization as the secular father. He still sees something in the wild man, which even makes him act against his father’s command. The key to the liberation of nature lies with the mother, but unused by her, for she also serves the narrow mind of the king. But what is this key to the liberation of nature?

Well, the boy pinches his finger when opening the cage, so he is burdened with pain and guilt because he disobeys his worldly father. And he repents of his deed and asks nature for help, not his worldly parents. The wild man recognizes the potential for change in the boy and takes him with him. The physical father is abandoned and a spiritual father takes his place.

When the wild man had once more reached the dark forest, he took the boy down from his shoulder, and said to him, “Thou wilt never see thy father and mother again, but I will keep thee with me, for thou hast set me free, and I have compassion on thee. If thou dost all I bid thee, thou shalt fare well. Of treasure and gold have I enough, and more than any one in the world.” He made a bed of moss for the boy on which he slept, and the next morning the man took him to a well, and said, “Behold, the gold well is as bright and clear as crystal, thou shalt sit beside it, and take care that nothing falls into it, or it will be polluted. I will come every evening to see if thou hast obeyed my order.” The boy placed himself by the margin of the well, and often saw a golden fish or a golden snake show itself therein, and took care that nothing fell in. As he was thus sitting, his finger hurt him so violently that he involuntarily put it in the water. He drew it quickly out again, but saw that it was quite gilded, and whatsoever pains he took to wash the gold off again, all was to no purpose. In the evening Iron John came back, looked at the boy, and said, “What has happened to the well?” “Nothing, nothing,” he answered, and held his finger behind his back, that the man might not see it. But he said, “Thou hast dipped thy finger into the water, this time it may pass, but take care thou dost not again let anything go in.” By daybreak the boy was already sitting by the well and watching it. His finger hurt him again and he passed it over his head, and then unhappily a hair fell down into the well. He took it quickly out, but it was already quite gilded. Iron John came, and already knew what had happened. “Thou hast let a hair fall into the well,” said he. “I will allow thee to watch by it once more, but if this happens for the third time then the well is polluted, and thou canst no longer remain with me.”

On the third day, the boy sat by the well, and did not stir his finger, however much it hurt him. But the time was long to him, and he looked at the reflection of his face on the surface of the water. And as he still bent down more and more while he was doing so, and trying to look straight into the eyes, his long hair fell down from his shoulders into the water. He raised himself up quickly, but the whole of the hair of his head was already golden and shone like the sun. You may imagine how terrified the poor boy was! He took his pocket-handkerchief and tied it round his head, in order that the man might not see it. When he came he already knew everything, and said, “Take the handkerchief off.” Then the golden hair streamed forth, and let the boy excuse himself as he might, it was of no use. “Thou hast not stood the trial, and canst stay here no longer. Go forth into the world, there thou wilt learn what poverty is. But as thou hast not a bad heart, and as I mean well by thee, there is one thing I will grant thee; if thou fallest into any difficulty, come to the forest and cry, “Iron John,” and then I will come and help thee. My power is great, greater than thou thinkest, and I have gold and silver in abundance.”

The wild man becomes the boy’s teacher. He leads him to the source, where his only job is to keep watch and maintain purity. A most amazing task! Anyone who has ever studied yoga and meditation will know how incredibly difficult it is to pass such a test. Just sitting, watching, seeing and recognizing without being entangled in it. First, you feel bored, because the thoughts have no distraction. Old feelings of guilt can also come up - the boy unconsciously sticks his aching finger into the golden spring. What happens? Refinement of the finger and this may be forgiveness.

What do fish and snakes stand for in this golden fountain, the pure essence of nature, truth and innermost being? Maybe for the pure soul and the elemental force of nature, swimming together in harmony. And when the boy looks into the spring, he sees his reflection. But he cannot look himself in the eye - he does not recognize yet, and so the well is polluted. How would the fairy tale have gone on if he had passed the test?

Despite everything, the boy experiences change. He carriesis connected with some truth at hands, what the golden spots on hand and head with himshow. Only he cannot be “golden” yet. His teacher now knows that the next stage of his education is imminent: attentive action in the world, dealing with it in humility and patience, assuming responsibility and the associated maturing process. He sends him abroad - the motif that appears in so many fairy tales - and remains at his side as a trusting helper.

Then the King’s son left the forest, and walked by beaten and unbeaten paths ever onwards until at length he reached a great city. There he looked for work, but could find none, and he had learnt nothing by which he could help himself. At length he went to the palace, and asked if they would take him in. The people about court did not at all know what use they could make of him, but they liked him, and told him to stay. At length the cook took him into his service, and said he might carry wood and water, and rake the cinders together. Once when it so happened that no one else was at hand, the cook ordered him to carry the food to the royal table, but as he did not like to let his golden hair be seen, he kept his little cap on. Such a thing as that had never yet come under the King’s notice, and he said, “When thou comest to the royal table thou must take thy hat off.” He answered, “Ah, Lord, I cannot; I have a bad sore place on my head.” Then the King had the cook called before him and scolded him, and asked how he could take such a boy as that into his service; and that he was to turn him off at once. The cook, however, had pity on him, and exchanged him for the gardener’s boy.

The boy comes to strangers, and they like him. Even though he has never learned anything practical, he is welcomed because his nature has already changed and impresses others. But the boy hides his golden nature, he does not yet show his new consciousness. Maybe he would also be recognized as the son of a king, and perhaps sent back to the worldly father. He even pretends to be unclean with a rash on his head.

As with most fairy tales, Iron John also has many different versions, such as “The wild man”. In this version of the story, the wild man accommodates the boy himself as a gardener’s assistant at the royal court. But the boy has to sleep in the stable because he is so dirty and nobody wants to share the room with him. In the morning, when he wants to start his work in the garden, the wild man comes to meet him and sends him to wash and comb. While the boy is cleaning himself, the wild man works in the garden and makes it much nicer than the gardener himself ever could. You cannot express it better! If man respects his inner purity and works constantly to keep himself and his surroundings virtuous, then nature works of its own accord and gives him the fruits of his pure action.

And now the boy had to plant and water the garden, hoe and dig, and bear the wind and bad weather. Once in summer when he was working alone in the garden, the day was so warm he took his little cap off that the air might cool him. As the sun shone on his hair it glittered and flashed so that the rays fell into the bed-room of the King’s daughter, and up she sprang to see what that could be. Then she saw the boy, and cried to him, “Boy, bring me a wreath of flowers.” He put his cap on with all haste, and gathered wild field-flowers and bound them together. When he was ascending the stairs with them, the gardener met him, and said, “How canst thou take the King’s daughter a garland of such common flowers? Go quickly, and get another, and seek out the prettiest and rarest.” “Oh, no,” replied the boy, “the wild ones have more scent, and will please her better.” When he got into the room, the King’s daughter said, “Take thy cap off, it is not seemly to keep it on in my presence.” He again said, “I may not, I have a sore head.” She, however, caught at his cap and pulled it off, and then his golden hair rolled down on his shoulders, and it was splendid to behold. He wanted to run out, but she held him by the arm, and gave him a handful of ducats. With these he departed, but he cared nothing for the gold pieces. He took them to the gardener, and said, “I present them to thy children, they can play with them.” The following day the King’s daughter again called to him that he was to bring her a wreath of field-flowers, and when he went in with it, she instantly snatched at his cap, and wanted to take it away from him, but he held it fast with both hands. She again gave him a handful of ducats, but he would not keep them, and gave them to the gardener for playthings for his children. On the third day things went just the same; she could not get his cap away from him, and he would not have her money.

And so it continues – he keeps away not only from the king, the owner of secular power and the epitome of culture, but also from female charms. He neither boasts of his own spiritual gold, nor does he reach for the worldly gold offered to him. He does his duty, yet retreats from the usual habits of the people around him. But he is already trying to reestablish the harmony of culture and nature, because he brings the princess the wild, simple flowers, not the bred and magnificent.

Not long afterwards, the country was overrun by war. The King gathered together his people, and did not know whether or not he could offer any opposition to the enemy, who was superior in strength and had a mighty army. Then said the gardener’s boy, “I am grown up, and will go to the wars also, only give me a horse.” The others laughed, and said, “Seek one for thyself when we are gone, we will leave one behind us in the stable for thee.” When they had gone forth, he went into the stable, and got the horse out; it was lame of one foot, and limped hobblety jig, hobblety jig; nevertheless he mounted it, and rode away to the dark forest. When he came to the outskirts, he called “Iron John,” three times so loudly that it echoed through the trees. Thereupon the wild man appeared immediately, and said, “What dost thou desire?” “I want a strong steed, for I am going to the wars.” “That thou shalt have, and still more than thou askest for.” Then the wild man went back into the forest, and it was not long before a stable-boy came out of it, who led a horse that snorted with its nostrils, and could hardly be restrained, and behind them followed a great troop of soldiers entirely equipped in iron, and their swords flashed in the sun. The youth made over his three-legged horse to the stable-boy, mounted the other, and rode at the head of the soldiers. When he got near the battle-field a great part of the King’s men had already fallen, and little was wanting to make the rest give way. Then the youth galloped thither with his iron soldiers, broke like a hurricane over the enemy, and beat down all who opposed him. They began to fly, but the youth pursued, and never stopped, until there was not a single man left. Instead, however, of returning to the King, he conducted his troop by bye-ways back to the forest, and called forth Iron John. “What dost thou desire?” asked the wild man. “Take back thy horse and thy troops, and give me my three-legged horse again.” All that he asked was done, and soon he was riding on his three-legged horse. When the King returned to his palace, his daughter went to meet him, and wished him joy of his victory. “I am not the one who carried away the victory,” said he, “but a strange knight who came to my assistance with his soldiers.” The daughter wanted to hear who the strange knight was, but the King did not know, and said, “He followed the enemy, and I did not see him again.” She inquired of the gardener where his boy was, but he smiled, and said, “He has just come home on his three-legged horse, and the others have been mocking him, and crying, “Here comes our hobblety jig back again!” They asked, too, “Under what hedge hast thou been lying sleeping all the time?” He, however, said, “I did the best of all, and it would have gone badly without me.” And then he was still more ridiculed.”

Our boy makes his next move. The time arrives to take responsibility, which he does not shy away from. But still he does not want to reveal himself and his abilities. Only the king’s daughter already suspects that the golden hair of the youth is associated with special qualities. But she is smart enough to wait until the right moment.

The King said to his daughter, “I will proclaim a great feast that shall last for three days, and thou shalt throw a golden apple. Perhaps the unknown will come to it.” When the feast was announced, the youth went out to the forest, and called Iron John. “What dost thou desire?” asked he. “That I may catch the King’s daughter’s golden apple.” “It is as safe as if thou hadst it already,” said Iron John. “Thou shalt likewise have a suit of red armour for the occasion, and ride on a spirited chestnut-horse.” When the day came, the youth galloped to the spot, took his place amongst the knights, and was recognized by no one. The King’s daughter came forward, and threw a golden apple to the knights, but none of them caught it but he, only as soon as he had it he galloped away. On the second day Iron John equipped him as a white knight, and gave him a white horse. Again he was the only one who caught the apple, and he did not linger an instant, but galloped off with it. The King grew angry, and said, “That is not allowed; he must appear before me and tell his name.” He gave the order that if the knight who caught the apple, should go away again they should pursue him, and if he would not come back willingly, they were to cut him down and stab him. On the third day, he received from Iron John a suit of black armour and a black horse, and again he caught the apple. But when he was riding off with it, the King’s attendants pursued him, and one of them got so near him that he wounded the youth’s leg with the point of his sword. The youth nevertheless escaped from them, but his horse leapt so violently that the helmet fell from the youth’s head, and they could see that he had golden hair. They rode back and announced this to the King.

Red - white - black
The boy comes to pass the same test three times. Why three times? The colours seem to make the difference. Let’s say: red stands for the stimulating, active, fiery aspect in the character of a human, white for purity, transfiguration and perfection and black for the sluggish, the immobile. Everyone who lives in the world needs his sufficient share of fire, light and rest. No action without fire. No wisdom without light, and action brings bad fruit. And without the balancing calm neither action nor wisdom is possible. If the three basic inclinations of the spirit are in harmony, then man is spiritually healthy. If one of the inclinations outweighs too much, the person becomes either hyperactive or dull and sluggish and no longer has a good effect on the world. Our boy passes the test in all three colours. He can only be recognized and touched under the influence of sluggish black.

The following day the King’s daughter asked the gardener about his boy. “He is at work in the garden; the queer creature has been at the festival too, and only came home yesterday evening; he has likewise shown my children three golden apples which he has won.”

The King had him summoned into his presence, and he came and again had his little cap on his head. But the King’s daughter went up to him and took it off, and then his golden hair fell down over his shoulders, and he was so handsome that all were amazed. “Art thou the knight who came every day to the festival, always in different colours, and who caught the three golden apples?” asked the King. “Yes,” answered he, “and here the apples are,” and he took them out of his pocket, and returned them to the King. “If you desire further proof, you may see the wound which your people gave me when they followed me. But I am likewise the knight who helped you to your victory over your enemies.” “If thou canst perform such deeds as that, thou art no gardener’s boy; tell me, who is thy father?” “My father is a mighty King, and gold have I in plenty as great as I require.” “I well see,” said the King, “that I owe thanks to thee; can I do anything to please thee?” “Yes,” answered he, “that indeed you can. Give me your daughter to wife.” The maiden laughed, and said, “He does not stand much on ceremony, but I have already seen by his golden hair that he was no gardener’s boy,” and then she went and kissed him.

This time the king’s daughter gets the ball finally rolling, because - lo and behold - the youth has matured. Finally he confesses: Yes, it’s me! He confesses to his golden faculties, for he has finally realized one fact deep inside: By his friendly connection to the Iron John - that is, the combination of wild nature and organizing culture - all the treasures of life are revealed to him insofar as he needs them. So it is time for him to regain his place in the world and to fulfil his duties as king’s son. He chooses the true bride, because she has long since recognized his golden heart. He can also meet his parents. As long as the development of his mind was still in progress, he had to avoid both his parents and their narrow conception of civilization and wild nature, as well as a passionate connection with a woman. But now, after his enlightenment he can live together with everybody.

His father and mother came to the wedding, and were in great delight, for they had given up all hope of ever seeing their dear son again. And as they were sitting at the marriage-feast, the music suddenly stopped, the doors opened, and a stately King came in with a great retinue. He went up to the youth, embraced him and said, “I am Iron John, and was by enchantment a wild man, but thou hast set me free; all the treasures which I possess, shall be thy property.”

Iron John is again recognizable as a benevolent king and spiritual father, since the youth restored the good connection of the worldly power with the wild nature.
Who had cursed nature as savage and hostile?
But now nature has regained her royal dignity, which man had taken from her. And we see that nature can be an excellent teacher to us, and truly, we receive all our wealth only from nature. Nature should be our friend, not our enemy. Then culture and nature can coexist.

P.S. The relation of the physical father of the youth to nature reminds us of the behaviour of our modern, scientific-material people. We do not ask, do not want to humbly approach the golden spring and maybe to restrain ourselves for a while, but we force nature with technology, chemistry and mass under our luxurious will. It still seems to work, because our supermarkets brag with overflowing shelves. But we are already allergic to all sorts of foods from our sprayed fields and enslaved cattle herds, and suffer from weird diseases not well known to science. Please help us, Iron John!

Jorinda and Joringel - (topic: power of true love)
Iron John (topic: making nature an enemy)
The Old Woman in the Wood - (topic: change in nature)
Hansel and Grethel - (topic: defeating ego and desire)
Rumpelstiltskin - (topic: essence of nature and its spirit)
Mother Holle - (topic: essence of nature)
The Youth who went forth to learn what Fear was - (topic: essence of fear)
Little Red-Cap - (topic: essence of desire)
Hans in Luck - (topic: way to true happiness)
Godfather Death - (topic: essence of death and reality)
... Table of contents of all fairy tale interpretations ...

[1884] Grimm's Household Tales. Translated from the German and edited by Margaret Hunt. With an introduction by Andrew Lang, 1884, Vol. 1/2, London: George Bell and Sons
[2018] Text and Pictures by Undine & Jens /